Lauren Gordon is the author of four chapbooks, Meaningful Fingers (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Keen (Horse Less Press, 2014), Fiddle Is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015) and Generalizations About Spines (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit. In this interview, conducted by Lizi Gilad, she talks about her recent chapbook, a collection of persona poems inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.
Gilad: First things first: why Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Gordon: I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie series, so the poems originally began from a place of nostalgia and love. As a character, Laura Ingalls Wilder (and I feel the need to delineate between the person vs. the character since the series was fictionalized) spoke to me in her need to always to be a good girl. I understood Laura’s existential crisis on a deep level, even as a young reader. It is one thing to have the knowledge of right and wrong and another to weld behavior accordingly. I began re-reading the series for pleasure when I was a graduate student and going through a divorce. I had just relocated to Wisconsin and lived across the street from a small, undeveloped prairie. And I found myself getting annoyed with those re-readings. Where were the outhouses? In a house full of women, why does no one ever discuss menstruation? Or the death of Laura’s brother? Did Laura’s mother have “the talk” before she married Almanzo as a teenager? In my own grieving over the dissolution of my marriage, I had a strong desire to recreate a more adult version of Laura and after a few experimental series poems, the project took shape.
As I read the chapbook, one word of several that immediately came to mind was ‘ekphrasis’. The poems that make up Fiddle Is Flood absolutely engage with the material of Little House on The Prairie but at the same time, very much are their own thing. The reader need not be familiar with Wilder or with her books to appreciate your poems. I’m wondering if you can discuss a little bit about your engagement with the material—did you set out to do ekphrastic work? Was it the LHOTP collection that sparked engagement and led you to create this work, or were you more interested in having a “conversation” with Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Thank you for saying the reader does not need to be familiar with LHOTP – I was not sure of that, so it’s nice to hear it. Persona poetry is interesting as a subject and these are definitely persona poems that are mostly Laura, but her daughter Rose appears in a line or two and there is also a narrator occasionally. I definitely used emulation in language to create the persona. I like the idea that it’s a conversation, but truthfully it is probably closer to appropriation than an exchange. I inhabited the character to give it a voice it could not have had; to create a safe space where a thirteen year old invention could filter sexuality, gender, loss, racism… it is occasionally painful to read the LHOTP series now as an adult with the context of the history that was actually occurring around the family’s migrations. Now that the annotated biography has been released (and boy did that feed my desire to know “the truth”) the books can be read with a different lens. That was really my intent when writing these poems. I just wanted a darker Laura to come home to. I’m also interested in the blurred line between fact and fiction, how my Laura is sort of an unreliable narrator which makes you realize the Laura in the books is also sort of an unreliable (though likable) narrator.
One of the things that seriously seduced me about this chapbook is the darkness, discomfort, and eroticism you evoke in each poem. For example, the final lines in “Ma Scraps the Boiled Orange”:
I listen for the Indians
press a cold tongue
to the ceiling of my mouth
lay a hot hand
to myself under
the piecemeal quilt
Or, from “Pa Sent Me to Town”:
look at me strangely, Ma
say it with biscuits
say it with blackbirds sweet
are the uses of adversity
if you live like a barren field
lit with prairie fires
there isn’t a single rabbit left in this country mother
And, from “Then Grasshoppers Crawled Over the Baby”
to fuck their way west
and lay quivering gray jelly
in the hot earth
These lines recall to me Roland Barthes writing about the pleasure of the text—“that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do” because my body reacted to your poems in ways I wasn’t necessarily prepared for or interested in: a flush in the face, perhaps a quickened pulse. But these unwanted physical reactions, their disturbing the air around them with sexuality, violence, and darkness are I think part of what makes them so successful as ekphrastic pieces.
I feel like I need to go back and reread Wilder’s books! When I think about her work, especially LHOTP, I feel nostalgic, warm, and happy. My memory of reading Wilder is joyful and nourishing, sure, yet quite simple and uncomplicated. Reading your chapbook complicated my memory a bit. What did I miss, I wondered, and what belongs solely to the poet’s imagination? Would my reading of Wilder as an adult be more nuanced and complex? I’m thankful your text complicated things for me, muddled my memories and led me to darker, stranger “prairies”. This is all a long windup to ask you to discuss the edges in these poems, your apparent desire to subvert the texts (our memories of it), to dirty and cloud and storm.
Well, definitely go back and read the series – but I don’t know if you will find too many sexy parts! I mean, there are a lot of awkward sleigh rides and a little jealousy when it comes to Almanzo. But I think you nailed it, that the books are a comfortable, safe, happy, and warm space, until you impose Truth. Then they start to cast a shadow and it’s hard to un-see the shadow in the re-readings. As a comfortable, sheltered white kid, even I knew that the scene where Pa is in black-face yukking it up at church, was “controversial” (to say the least) but it has a different overtone in a contextual reading. There is a consistent theme of the Other in these books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a racist. She was kind-hearted and loving and clever, but let’s be clear about it – she was racist and her family was racist. We are talking about systematic, fundamental racism. When writing the poems, it was easier for me to inhabit taboo sexuality and puberty and to insert Rose as a counter to Laura’s “fond racism” (think of Laura wanting to own an Indian infant because of its “inky black eyes”). The poem about the Indian who predicts the long winter (who has remained unnamed, despite the annotated biography research) is an important one in the manuscript, because without those pointers, it is too easy to slip into the romanticism of prairie life, when it was anything but. My version is also not the Truth. It’s just a spin.
I’m not going to win any brownie points for creating Laura Ingalls Wilder as a masturbating racist, I know. I don’t think I had to manipulate the texts too much to even bring the racism into the forefront. I wish sexuality had been less taboo, because it is so hard for me to fathom being a sixteen year old bride, and I am a rubbernecker for the nitty gritty. Her courting period was full of a lot of angst, with little talk of choice or love. That grew from circumstance maybe. Almanzo steps in as a new sort of father figure. Grief and sex are tied together. The loss of her brother (and her own subsequent miscarriage, which is another sub-current in the poems) is another lever for subversion. In her annotated biography, the death of her brother is reported in one sentence and is rarely dwelt on again: “one terrible day, he straightened out his little body and was dead.” That sentence rocks me. It minimizes the grief while at the same time explodes it – it happened on one terrible day, his body was little and stiff and that was that. I became a mother while revising and writing this manuscript, so the persona’s grief is really my grief of course. But it’s an interesting idea that there is a text within a text and both can be mixed together or re-imagined for a new perspective. And I might have a little bit of a warped sense of the world.
I noticed in your acknowledgments sections you thanked a few people for letting you “talk about this manuscript for the last six years.” I am fascinated by this declaration of love—I mean, love for the work you were doing, love for LIW. Can you talk a little about why you stayed with this project for that period of time and why/how were you so committed to it?
Sure. This started as an experiment under the tutelage of Ilya Kaminsky, who is an incredible poet and an even more wonderful person. He encouraged me to keep going with it and see where it would take me. It went through a lot of changes and I became that one guy at the bar that just gets drunk every night and tells the same story over and over again about how his wife left him and took the dog. I worked on this manuscript and then I shelved it. And then I worked on it again. And then I shelved it again. And I had a hard time publishing individual pieces, because the poems all ran together like a bad watercolor. And the pitch “these are Laura Ingalls Wilder persona poems” has few editors hurrying to publish. One very renowned publishing house wrote to me and said they could see it having great YA appeal. It made me wonder if they had even read the manuscript. So this manuscript (in all its variations) really went through the ringer until it became what it is now. And the few wonderful journals that did run these poems have my undying gratefulness. I am lucky to have such talented and kind poet friends – friends who said “this is good, don’t give up” and friends who said “it isn’t about where you publish or who you know, it’s about having people in your life that believe in what you’re trying to do.” So I kept those kernels of wisdom close. This is what we do for our art, right? We create it, we throw it away, we look at it again, we salvage it, we shelve it, and then we shoo it out the front door à la Anne Bradstreet.
Then, if you happen to be a glutton for punishment, you revise it for a full length manuscript.
Your attention to sound and wordplay is delicious. I have a sense that perhaps the language of that time and place may have been the first seed for this whole collection. Certain words that just feel very Wilder, very LHOTP. Calico, jug, butter, fiddle, grass, chirruped, pail, pa, ma, mud, etc. Well, obviously some of these words are not at all just of this time and place, but amiright? The particulars of the language specific to that time and place, were they your muse?
You have a good eye! Thank you. A lot of the language is straight from the books. That was important to create familiarity and to then do a little twist through repetition, alliteration, consonance and rhythm. You see Pa call Laura “little half pint” but it takes on a sort of sinister crumbling in the poem. I mean, sure, you wouldn’t read the words “spawning ovum” in the Little House series. The repetition was key to the song-like quality. I wrote the first series poem as if it were a hymn, like I was singing the verses. Ilya was, of course, the perfect foil for that kind of work, because his own poetry sings. I always say he taught me how to sing, especially when I didn’t think I had a voice. The language operates as a metaphor for the family’s endless traveling, in a sing-song way that mimics Pa’s fiddle. Music was an important part of Laura’s life. It just made sense that the manuscript should honor that.
I believe this is your third or fourth chapbook, yes? What are your thoughts on the chapbook form? Do you prefer to work smaller? Do you think the material in Fiddle Is Flood required a briefer manuscript?
Yes, this was chapbook #3 out of 4. I love chapbooks. I love reading in small bites. I love the affordability and the art and love put into them. No one is starting a chapbook press because they want to make money. It’s purely for the love of the art. I don’t necessarily prefer to work smaller, but it just happens that way! Fiddle was a long series poem at first, and then it evolved into a chapbook manuscript – and then I wrote for another year and it grew into a full length manuscript. After sending it out and getting a lot of honest feedback (YA appeal, lol) I cut it back down to a succinct chapbook manuscript. I thought it would be neat to see a handmade chapbook for this manuscript with a small press and I was lucky that it won the contest with Blood Pudding Press. The editor, Juliet Cook, makes really lovely handmade chapbooks and I’m so happy with the finished product. It seems like something that is true to the art. I also created the artwork for the cover. It’s a combination of images from a children’s nursery rhyme book from the nineteenth century. Hidden in the scroll-work are the names of my husband and daughter, and the blackbird is homage to Blood Pudding Press’s journal, Thirteen Myna Birds.
Did I veer from the question? I was very invested in finding the right home for it. It is now part of a full length manuscript (I am shopping) that combines this chapbook with another I published last year with Horse Less Press called “Keen” – persona poems about Nancy Drew. I swear I never meant to become this gimmicky. So I like the idea that chapbooks can become full length manuscripts with the right maneuvering. And I’m nuts – I am so delighted with the idea of bringing Nancy side by side with Laura. It changes the entire conversation about authorship and literature for young girls.
What’s the last best book you read?
It’s a three way tie, is that ok? “rel[am]ent” by Jamison Crabtree, “Last Psalm at Sea Level” by Meg Day, and “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison” by Maggie Smith. I will gush. I am very close to gushing. Three wonderful, important books and poets.
Are you working on anything new?
I am. I am trying to publish this full length of Fiddle and Keen, and also sending out two other chapbook manuscripts – one is experimental poems about the dissolution of marriage through addiction and the other is more formal poetry about relationships. Hmm, thematic. I am going to the Tin House summer workshop in July to work on a full length manuscript I have been laboring over for about five years now. I just want to get this thing finished and polished and into the world. This one is my heart and soul on paper. It (I) needs resolution. I get to work with Natalie Diaz and I am already sweaty and nervous and giddy. Isn’t poetry wonderful?
Is there anything I neglected to ask you that you’d like to address?
Do you think a Choose Your Own Adventure anthology of poetry would be insane? Like one poet writes one poem without an ending and another poet writes an alternative ending and then another poet writes another ending or another beginning and maybe there is artwork and… children’s literature, it’s a whole plum ready for picking.
Fiddle is Flood is available from Blood Pudding Press.
Lizi Gilad’s recent work can be found in Dum Dum Zine, Forklift Ohio, and Poor Claudia. Her first chapbook,Hyperion, will be released by Big Lucks in the winter of 2015.
Fox Frazier-Foley’s prize-winning chapbook with Sundress Publications is a collection of similarly-titled poems ranging in topic from Haitian Vodou and the Saint Patrick Four, to persona poems of past lives and an epistolary series written to photographer Diane Arbus. At a glance, the poems seem incongruous when held up side by side, but Frazier-Foley’s kaleidoscopic collection is quite masterfully arranged, if not discomfiting. The similarly-titled pieces create a sense of deja vu every couple of pages, but not in a way that feels like a gimmick. It’s an unsettling that forces the poems themselves to become grounding.
The first “Exodus in X Minor”-titled poem relies heavily on fragmented phrases and uncomfortable line breaks, interspersed with lyrical refrains. The poem introduces an origin story for an underdeveloped female voice that seems to evolve throughout the book’s arc. The drama of the poem moves the staccato reading in a way that is reminiscent of Alice Notley’s “Descent of Alette”, in that the awkward pauses begin to feel more natural as the story itself becomes more interesting:
The awkward line break pauses create tension on top of the violence that unfolds in the lines. The lyrical refrain is broken on the word “family” and the line that begins with “lies” has a reader questioning the practical intent of the word; it’s doing double duty as a lyric and as a tool for antagonizing the honesty of the father. The imagery manages to capture some kind of a bleak, dark house without ever having to rely on that kind of specific, detailed language. This kind of evocative mysticism and symbolism are tropes throughout the rest of the book with repetition of the color red: red-bearded, red-headed, strawberry, auburn, rouge, and finally, blood. Even the cover artwork speaks to the symbolic with the bright red lettering of “X” in the author’s name and title against a black and white background, next to a red slash through the middle of the art. It’s graphic and disturbing.
Violence is the hinge on which several of the poems swing upon. One of the strongest and most surprising poems in the book is “For Maddy Lerner, Age 6, Accidentally Killed at an Outdoor Firing Range in Upstate New York”. The title of the piece is long and journalistic, which sets an expectation for a reader that the poem may very well veer into editorial territory. It never occurs. Instead the poem is comfortingly humanizing and personal. The line breaks are done well and the lyrical couplet form is soft enough to hold them up: “You were, they said, struck//by hot brass from your mother’s new/AR-15 with custom scope. A tiny girl//at the table behind ours hit/the lights…” Where “a tiny girl” could venture into sentimentality, we’re surprised to find it a different little girl at the restaurant behind the speaker. The line break on “struck” is particularly eviscerating, but not as much as “hot brass from your mother’s new” – it’s artful and heartbreaking. The end of the poem is where we expect a censorial tone, instead it finishes with the speaker talking about her first time shooting a gun:
There is violence in these poems, surely, but there is a redemptive love, too. Maddy’s epistolary is part love poem part political poem. It’s weird how the poems fit together like that, as if they collectively are circumventing convention. The spiritual, dream-like realm that inhabits the Haitian Vodou poems is a glimmer of hope off in the distance, the Diane Arbus pieces are sometimes ekphrastic-feeling. The thread of connective tissue tying all of the pieces together seems to focus on the feats and limits of the physical body. In one “Letter to Diane Arbus”, Frazier-Foley writes “…learn a few new/walls out of all the surrounding/buildings housing strangers: that is to say, bodies/and the time they gives us.”
Life is temporary. Life is temporary even though you’re reading one of the many poems about past lives written in different personas. The fragility of the human body is consistently juxtaposed throughout this collection with the strength and tenacity of the spirit and being alive and in the world. If the collective description of Haitian Vodou is accurate – that it is not just a belief or religion, but an experience – then the same could be said for this debut collection of poetry. “Exodus in X Minor” leaves a reader in new territory, experiencing poetry from a new voice.
Exodus in X Minor is available from Sundress Publications.
Lauren Gordon’s reviews have appeared with Rain Taxi, Coldfront Magazine, PANK, The Collagist and are forthcoming with Poetry Crush and Damfino Press.
Elizabeth Cantwell’s full length poetry debut Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is a well-crafted exploration of the collective unconscious. With poems that drift in and out the dream world, Cantwell’s own subconscious speaker attempts to organize personal experience against a myriad of realities. The book is organized into five narrative lyric sections, with each section headed by a different version of the title poem, and the poems are mostly prose or informal with a few exceptions.
“A Hot, Close Sun Turning Your Temples into Ash” is the opening poem and while it is conversational in tone, the grammatical syntax creates an undercurrent of tension:
The confusion of “to save you end up trying/to pry/out” is uncomfortable, but that seems to be the point. Even the capitalized “T” in “the” creates a sort of tension in the reading, since the same grammatical rule isn’t static in other poems. These poems move in and out of reality and just when a reader begins to feel grounded, the scenery shifts. The read is a stumble between anxious dreams and waking dreams and reality, all separated by very thin veils.
The strongest poems in the book are the ones rooted in twilight sleep, where the speaker vacillates in her dreams between lucidity and reality. The first title poem jars the reader with its combination of concrete and sensory images:
The tabbed spacing for the italicized voice is well done, and the uncomfortable breaks in grammar are fitting. The watery distance of wakefulness starts to feel like a dream within a dream, and this is the discomfiting nature of Cantwell’s poetry. Just as a reader begins to feel grounded, it dissolves into a seascape. It would be Jungian and apt to make mention of the repetitive symbolism in many of the poems, ranging from balloons to the ocean, babies to 80s bands (Crowded House and The Smiths), to picnics and bodies being dragged. Even guillotines make several appearances. One might even call these tropes “recurring”.
It’s important, too, to not overlook Cantwell’s tiger. Blake’s “tyger” (of which she leads with a quote in the foreword) is often read as an epistolary exploration of why bad things happen to good people. The terror and beauty of the world are overwhelming, and it’s no different in Cantwell’s poems. The horror in the poem “A Kingdom Ago, by the River” spares no one: “Eventually everything goes in circles:/the raft, the fat man’s/bowel movements, the hair of the dead”. Later the syntax changes midstream and the lines become much longer, as if mimicking the unreliability of the dream: “but no one has ever gazed into their necks at dinner parties/no one’s thrown raw meat at their ankles in the marketplace”. The anxiety of a gruesome death seems to cast its pall on all of the poems, even when the tone has humor and even when the poetry isn’t as interior.
Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is a strong debut. In the poem “Aphasia”, Cantwell writes: “I realize I am obsessed with making all of this mean something.” That seems to be the collective unconscious at work in this book. Jung would definitely tip his hat.
Nights I Let the Tiger Get You is available from Black Lawrence Press
Lauren Gordon is the Pushcart nominated author of “Meaningful Fingers” (Finishing Line Press), “Keen” (Horse Less Press), and “Generalizations about Spines” (Yellow Flag Press). Her reviews have appeared or will appear with [PANK], Rain Taxi, The Collagist, and Coldfront Magazine. She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit.